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Li Yanpeng, born 1958, is one of today's top printmakers in China. His works are exhibited in major Chinese, but also Western art museums. In this article Li Yanpeng gives an insight into his very personal art philosophy and his early experience with the medium of the reduction woodblock print, a technique to produce multi-color prints with only one woodblock. The technique was introduced by artists in Yunan/China. It is rather challenging and requires a lot of skill and experience by the printmaker. For collectors it has the advantage that they can be assured that later printings are impossible. The block is destroyed by the very process of creation.
Li Yanpeng uses the expression waste-block print. The wording for this technique - now also used by artists in the U.S.A. and in Europe - is still in flux. He means the same as reduction woodblock print. For a detailed explanation of this special technique to create a multi-color woodblock print, please go to Reduction Woodblock Print.
"After 1980, I created two series of prints, one series in mixed-media technique "Stones", and another as waste-block prints, "Warm Winter". These two series are different in expressing content and style. The Series of "Stones" was painted realistically, but it bears something abstract. I paid more attention to exploit the contents of form. Whereas the style of "Warm Winter" is also realism, but I put the importance on expressing real life.
The art trend of new thoughts in 1985 influenced more or less Chinese artists. It made them recapitulate what they had created before and rethink and explore the future of their art works. This trend of artists looking for changes brought absolutely new vigor to current art creations.
Furthermore, at that time new techniques of making modern prints were introduced into China, coming from Japan and the U.S.A. Chinese printmakers found these techniques very new and fresh. So I decided to give up the traditional technique of woodblocks printed with soluble inks, a method with which I was very familiar with.
I began to test and exploit the new techniques of making prints. At the beginning, it was simple. I just cut and printed with relief blocks and only with one color. Later, it became more complex: cutting, putting blocks together, printing with relief and with intaglio blocks. The method that I used moved from single-color to multi-color printing.
By chance I found out that architects used the grains of the stone. It was the same thing as when I use the grains of wood. This encouraged me to create the first mixed media print, the series "Stones".
It had wonderful effects and was better than what I had expected. So I created the second, the third, and finally more than 20 prints. Wood, a plastic board, latex or even sand - if they can make good effects, I can use all materials whatever they are. The handling is also very diverse. Some are like babies, some are like foggy mountains far away, some are like flying in the sky, some are like sleeping in a water jar, some are related to animal fossils and some are like monuments.
The stone is real, but the composition of the artwork is very creative. It breaks the concept of space and time. I tried to use the same technique to express landscapes and characters. But it was not very ideal. Every technique has its limits. And wonderful effects can only be achieved by using it correctly.
When I had created more than 20 prints of the series of "Stones", I felt that I could not go any deeper. But it was hard nevertheless to give up this special technique that I had explored. And after a long time of reflection, I began to make woodcuts. I chose the method of waste-block prints, which I had never tried before - apart from my experience with the traditional Chinese woodcuts printed with soluble inks.
"Little Snow" was the first waste-block print that I created. The effect was not really ideal. It made no big difference from multi-block prints. The characteristics of waste-block prints did not come out clearly.
An artist normally must use several blocks when he wants to create a multi-color woodblock print. The image must be cut on as many blocks as the number of colors he wants to have. It is hard for an artist to avoid transfiguration and superposition when he uses several blocks. Therefore the number of blocks should better be limited, the image should better be simple and the sculpt brief.
With waste-block printing however the artist must cut on the same block. This technique easily avoids the transfiguration. Thus the artist can cut the image more particularly and detailed.
My second woodblock "Warm Winter no.1" is largely different from "Little snow". It shows the characteristics of a waste-block print well. I paid more attention to the composite relationship of the stone house and the stone steps. Even the stones looked more affluent and vivid.
I grew up in the countryside. Although I have lived in the city for more than 20 years, in my heart, a strong love for my homeland has remained active. Every year, I use to go back to the countryside and look at those familiar landscapes: The barren Loess Plateau, docile goats, lonely little trees and dispersed haystacks. In my eyes they look so beautiful and amiable.
The series "Warm Winter" expresses those habitual and ordinary everyday lives. What this series sought after, were reality, modesty and nature. I express what I personally saw with frugal art language. There are so many simple, natural and beautiful things. They should be shown in the picture. If we have to clean them up, we will lose sometimes some part of reality, and will simply look more illusive. The most true is the most beautiful.
The design of a waste-block print must be exact and abundant, so that an artist can cut with facility. The cutting tool often used is the V-shaped knife. The artist cuts according to the image composition, from bright to dark parts. The lines are fluent like in a drawing.
In general, I printed less than 5 times - starting with light and finishing with dark colors. The image of the series of "Warm Winter" is very profuse, fine, profound and vivid. Other painting or printing techniques than the waste-block print cannot take its place to produce such an artwork.
The series of "Warm Winter" expresses with realistic technique and frugal art language the daily life of the people and animals in the Taihang Mountains. The images are full of my feelings for the country life - true, natural and vivid.
If we should make a comparison between the series of "Stones" and "Warm Winter", the first one paid more attention to the innovation of techniques, but neglected contents and spirit. Thus it is hard to have resonance with the audience.
And the latter series described in a realistic style the normal country life that people are familiar with. It shorted the distance to talk with the people. This is what the quotation by Deng Xiaoping is all about:
"People need art, and art needs people"
This can be the right way for several generations of Chinese printmakers.
The recent creation of the series of "On the Field" is the continuation of the series of "Warm Winter". I will follow this way and create more prints to proffer to my people."
(translated by Ms. Jin Sha, edited by artelino)
Artist Profile: Yanpeng Li - external link
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